Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Afghan Whigs
- Album: Congregation
- Year of Release: 1992
- Country: USA
- Label: Sub Pop
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: SPCD 130 / 98787-0130-2
Congregation is Afghan Whigs’ third album, and their second on the pre-eminent label of grunge, Sub Pop. Despite being in the right place at the right time though, and despite the album itself receiving considerable acclaim on release from a broad range of publications, it failed to catapult the band to the kind of gigantic success enjoyed and endured by some of their contemporaries. In 2020, it is largely a footnote in the history of that particular era of rock ‘n’ roll, even if lead Whig Greg Dulli went on to enjoy a certain amount of low-key success after the band split, temporarily as it transpired, in 2001. This came firstly with the critically-adored Twilight Singers, and then also as half of The Gutter Twins with kindred spirit Mark Lanegan, whose career has followed a similarly circuitous route to its current esteem. Although their music shares many of the traits of their more popular contemporaries, the fact that Afghan Whigs failed to so much as hitch a ride on the coattails of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney in the early 90s is fairly easy to understand. Congregation is simply too scrappy and difficult, striking out in numerous directions and containing plenty of moments of inspiration, but lacking either the pure thrill of the white-hot punk rock riffage employed by the bands at the heavier end of the grunge spectrum, or the broad melodic appeal of Pearl Jam or Pixies, the record found no natural audience, and as such Afghan Whigs were ever-destined to exist as the outsider’s outsiders.
A low-key intro sets the tone for the rest of the album, a sparse drum beat emerging from the silence quickly joined by a crash of brittle, discordant guitars, and the haunting voice of Miss Ruby Belle intoning the menacing lyrics “Eat my imagination / Taste my imaginary friend / I know your ass is fine / But I’m the only one who can say… / That it’s mine”. Belle is reputedly personifying the opiate pull of heroin, and Dulli’s dark, fascinating and even confrontational lyrics are one of the most intriguing elements of Congregation as he explores the darker sides human intimacy in a way that sets the Afghan Whigs apart from some of their more quotidian peers. The brief ‘Her Against Me’ segues directly into the thematically similar ‘I’m Her Slave’ which casts off any ambiguity, making very clear that the ‘Her’ of the title is most certainly not a lady that one should involve oneself with, and perhaps one that Dulli can never untangle himself from: “Get off that stuff, she said / And I’ll stone you instead / Unchain yourself said she / And tie yourself to me”. It’s unclear to what extent Dulli is performing a role here in terms of the sometimes dissolute characters that he inhabits across the album, but there is a gritty authenticity to his delivery that suggests that Dulli is writing from at least a modicum of experience. If ‘Her Against Me’ prepared the listender for an album of gothic folk, in the vein of Chelsea Wolfe, this notion is quickly disabused by the ultra-90s sounds of the first track proper. A scratchy, swirling guitar figure combined with a tom-heavy tribal drum feel makes for a percussive verse, leavened by a tender chorus, and the obvious touchpoints are Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, and any number of early 1990s bands rushing into the open space in the mainstream cleared by the the incipient alternative rock revolution led by Nirvana, Janes Addiction et al. It’s a curious phenomenon that in a 21st century rock scene that sometimes appears dominated by retrogressive sounds, the kind of noisy, but vaguely tuneful off-kilter rock pedalled by the Afghan Whigs has fallen dramatically out of favour, and as such, Congregation cannot help but sound rather dated, not that this lessens its considerable appeal.
The element of the Afghan Whigs sound which really separates them from the pack is the unusual influence of funk and soul, snatches of which bubble to the surface from time to time. Their love of these forms of music is not an affectation – the band followed up Congregation with Uptown Avondale, a covers EP including versions of Supremes and Al Green tracks among others, as well as incorporating other standards into live sets – but we should also not overstate the presence of these influences in their music either; this is not a Nation Of Ulysses or Minutemen album after all. On Congregation at least, the band’s noisy guitar scree dominates proceedings, but there is a subtle use of clipped funk guitars throughout some of the more interesting tracks, the rhythm guitars channelling Nile Rogers. This serves to highlight the Afghan Whigs ability to assimilate a wider array of sonics than the average grunge band, whose listening habits start at Black Flag and end at Black Sabbath. To be clear, there are worst bands to emulate than Blacks Flag and Sabbath, but it is refreshing to hear a band that is able to deploy a broader modes of expression, as it expands the emotional range of the work. It is no surprise that the songs that in many ways define the album are both the most successful at synthesising the various facets of the band’s sound, and also the most dynamic in terms of volume and melody.
The first track that makes a lasting impression is the splendid ‘Conjure Me’. Once again, a funky guitar line, this time run through a wah-pedal, is practically ever-present, and the guitar lines of Dulli and Rick McCollum dance across each other constantly, tracing deceptively clever patterns, weaving the “web of conspiracy” of which Dulli sings, suggesting one perspective of a tempestuous relationship. For the first time of the album though, ‘Conjure Me’ really takes flight when it reaches the chorus. The way in which Dulli’s wounded wail breaks as he sings in a higher register gives it an especially heart-breaking power, before a more spacious and open bridge section releases the pent up tension of the song, the band collectively releasing a breath that they didn’t know that they were holding. The title-track is even better, the highlight and centrepiece of the album in fact. ‘Congregation’ is an up-tempo driving beast, which gradually escalates to an almost celebratory chorus. Dulli is found here in full preacher mode, standing tall on the dais, hands raised invoking almight power, screaming “I am your creator!” It’s a thrilling moment, and demonstrates just how good a band the Afghan Whigs might become were they able to compile a whole album of songs of this calibre.
Unsurprisingly though, for a band that were clearly still developing their sound, Congregation contains a number of songs that are rather less impactful than the aforementioned highlights. This really starts to show during the mid-section of the album which drags horribly, as similar sounding songs begin to merge together, lacking the kind of memorable hooks or transcendent vocal melodies to distinguish them from one another. ‘This Is My Confession’ is the best track of this part of the record, Dulli’s all too honest lyrics adding an unsettling quality to a sparse musical accompaniment, which pairs intricate folky guitar lines with a more conventional, early REM-style song structure. Lines such as “I’m lyin’ now / I always do / I know my way around the truth” certainly open the band to accusations of misogyny, but I would argue that they are laden with enough self-awareness to suggests the possibility of redemption. ‘Dedicate It’ explores exactly the same sound, which is rather wearying, however, and at this point the listener may feel that they are ingesting a bland meal in which the base ingredients are all present and correct, but the chef is not quite skilled enough to add the right mix of seasoning at the right time to transform the dish into layers of interesting flavours. The slightly incongruous cover of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Temple’ from Jesus Christ Superstar actually fares a little better, with the odd 7/4 time signature grabbing the listener’s attention due to it’s off-kilter rhythms, and a superb and wonderfully prominent bassline ensuring that the attention, once grabbed, does not wane.
The album concludes with ‘Miles Iz Ded’, originally a secret track, but thankfully upgraded to official status on the represses of Congregation, and this off-the-cuff tribute to the legendary Miles Davis is a fitting end to the album. In many respects, bearing no resemblance to the jazz man that it pays tribute to, it is the album’s most straightforward and succinct track. Raging crashes of chords provide a visceral and exciting backdrop to Dulli’s melodic yelp, repeating the chorus refrain over and over again – “Don’t forget the alcohol / Ooh baby, ooh baby”. Not quite as sophisticated as the more overtly poetic wordplay that peppers the rest of the album admittedly, but the immediacy of a hook reputedly based on an answerphone message left for Dulli on the night of Davis’s death in 1991 is perfectly suited to the grunge-punk fervour of a track that is every bit the equal of the kind of raw, but melodic, punk that Nirvana, Fugazi and Mudhoney were purveying at the same time. ‘Miles Iz Ded’ is a good argument for intuition over conscious thought when it comes to rocking out, and suggests that perhaps Congregation might have been a better album had the band let rip with a little more freedom a little more often. As it is, Congregation is a more than solid album that is at its best when it fuses discordant rock with infectious melodies, and plays on the band’s ability to infuse their slightly offbeat indie-punk with shards of funk, folk and strafing slashes of noise. There is plenty to enjoy here, but no songs strong enough to really transcend the context of the album in a way that might have given the band the kind of underground hit that could have raised their profile at a time when they were within touching distance of mainstream popularity. Congregation reveals talent and potential in abundance, but not the songwriting nous or focus to fully capitalise on either. As such, it will likely remain a good example of credible 1990s rock, but will also remain undisturbed by adventurous rock fans looking for overlooked albums ripe for rediscovery.